Dark Times 11 – 1996 – Part 4

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Stallone must be in need of bringing the suffering to Daylight. Yet Star Wars aficionados were rescued by Ben Burtt in 1996. New instalment in the series on how Star Wars returned to pop culture.

Lucasfilm understood that a franchise was supposed to act as a companion to its followers and ensured that fans could constantly enjoy the invigorating sensation of discovery within the familiar universe of Star Wars.

The company had also managed to saturate the market with products such as guides, encyclopaedias and specially branded board games (most notably Star Wars Trivial Pursuit) to cater to a new breed of fans.

The sensational symbiosis between Shadows and the gentle launch of the Star Wars Special Edition campaign married seamlessly these aspects of franchise management. The special treats for Star Wars fans then got even tastier still.

IMAX launched Ben Burtt’s labour of love, the educational documentary feature Special Effects – Anything Can Happen. This handsome production not only chronicled and explored the historical evolution of the visual effects trade, but also previewed extensively sequences of the upcoming Star Wars Special Edition release, featuring behind-the-scenes coverage of Paul Huston painstakingly creating a daunting volume of elements for a single digital matte painting, and a handful of U.S. Marines being drafted into the Imperial Army to accompany digital dewbacks.

Clip from Star Wars Galaxy, Autumn 1996
An ILMer inspects a maquette of a dewback, soon to be turned into wireframes and pixels for 1997.

The latter sequence proved especially challenging: ‘Because of schedules, we ended up having to shoot that material in August, which is the worst time of the year in the desert!’, explained Burtt, who had to adapt his honed filmmaking skills to the demands of the environment: ‘The heat necessitated that you work early in the morning and late in the afternoon. […] It was a kind of funny production schedule. […] You couldn’t get quite as much done every day as you might ordinarily want to because you had to clear out, break up your setups, and retreat to the shade during the mid-part of the day when it’s 115 degrees or something’ (p38-9, Cinefantastique, Vol.28, No. 8).

There was criticism that Burtt exploited a good premise for the blatant promotion of his employer’s future projects, yet the sound wizard whisked all accusation aside, stating: ‘I was working [on the Star Wars Special Edition] part-time as well, so I had a connection to it and had an established relationship with Lucasfilm. They very generously allowed me to bring the IMAX film crew and camera into ILM and on location to cover some of those events. It was just a happy coincidence that our calendars were lined up’ (p38, Cinefantastique, Vol. 28, No.8).

Ben Burtt, director of the IMAX documentary Special Effects, recreates the opening moments of the legendary A New Hope in the gigantic IMAX format.

Such a coincidence naturally paid amazing dividends since brand-new Star Wars footage was catered to the specialised IMAX crowd, inevitably enlarging the potential audience of Lucas’ re-release further. Nevertheless, what truly hit the ball out the park was an idea that Ben Burtt had hatched all by himself.

Given the grandeur of IMAX and the splendour of visual effects craftsmanship, Ben Burtt figured that for an audience to mentally comprehend the glory of 65mm IMAX, they would have to be able to relate the IMAX experience to something they had seen before. Burtt selected two of the best known effect shots ever to recreate them from scratch in the giant IMAX format: ANH’s opening scene and the Millennium Falcon’s jump to lightspeed. Despite all the blasts, explosions and roaring starship engines, one could hear a pin drop during this outstanding shots.

Ben Burtt inspects the very original Millenium Falcon model before its jump to lightspeed is recreated in the IMAX format.
Ben Burtt inspects the very original Millenium Falcon model before shooting a motion-control shot of Han Solo’s “piece of junk” jumping to lightspeed in the IMAX format.

An unforgettable experience by all accounts, the sound engineer’s third IMAX feature Special Effects(after the phenomenal Blue Planet (1990) and the astounding Destiny in Space (1994)) firmly stood its own ground and, together with the Special Edition teaser, deserves due credit for having put Star Wars on the map of motion picture glory again.

As Star Wars had now been firmly established as a gleaming hot motion picture property again, the resourceful Shadows also slyly addressed the days of the legendary Old Rebulic to instil a sense of awe in anticipation of the Prequels, in particular when Xizor ponders the abilities and alliances of his adversaries (‘Skywalker? That had been Vader’s name, a long time ago. […] Obi-Wan. That name Xizor knew. He was among the last of the Jedi Knights. But he’d been dead for decades, hadn’t he?’, SOTE, p2-3; ‘Xizor didn’t truly understand the Force that sustained the Emperor and made him and Vader so powerful. But he did know that it was something the extinct Jedi had supposedly mastered’, SOTE, p4).

Lucasfilm magazines had been briskly filling their readers in on George Lucas’ progress. In Spring, the regular Prequel Update revealed that the bearded one had retreated to his study where he was busy writing ‘treatments’ in non-linear fashion, still undecided as to his role as a director. Writer Frank Darabont was still considered for eventually polishing Lucas’ work. Casting had begun in the meantime, while Rick McCallum touted the ‘new production process’ that could allow for shooting the prequels back to back. Lucasfilm was indeed so anxious to step up the production, ILM had already been working on animatics for two major sequences in January (the pod race and the Battle of Naboo).

By the middle of the year, Rick McCallum was globetrotting to scout locations although Tunesia had already been pencilled in as a major setting for the prequel. Another fixture, much to everyone’s delight, was the appearance of the two beloved droids C3-PO and R2D2. On a more obscure note, Lucasfilm announced it would use footage shot twenty years ago…

As the year wound down, George Lucas had made up his mind and committed himself to the director’s chair. After he had also completed his first draft in July and decided to shoot the first episode separately, pre-production began in earnest on September 6th. Production designer Gavin Bouquet instantly began hammering away in England at Leavesden Studios – not, as was previously believed, Australia.

The release date was also set: May 21st 1999. The first Prequel’s sequels were tentatively planned for 2002 and 2005 respectively. As if to put fandom in a proper frame of mind for the true nature of the approaching storm, Rick McCallum painted a sobering picture of the Jedi Knights’ grim future in an excellent article by Mark Cotta Vaz: ‘For what I now know of the Emperor, I loathe him, I find him repugnant. […] While Vader is first pulled by his emotions, Palpatine is too cold and is pulled by his intellect”.

Star Wars Galaxy interview by Mark Cotta Vaz with Rick McCallum about Palpatine and his apprentice Darth Vader.
In a rare break from pre-production duties, Rick McCallum talks to Mark Cotta Vaz about the vile character of Palpatine in a Star Wars Galaxy article.

McCallum added: ‘To me, as an audience member, if I love Anakin as a young boy and see what his potential is, it’s going to be unbearable to watch his personality shift. Unbearable’ (p36-7, Star Wars Galaxy 8).


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